A Dedication to my Mother
Posted Fri, Oct 8, 2010

Most people, I’m guessing, take breathing for granted. After all, what could be more natural or regular than the inhaling/exhaling process repeated countless times throughout the day? With severe sleep apnea, however, I don’t have that luxury. Every night before bed, I load up my CPAP machine with distilled water and then, Darth Vader-like, hook myself up to the air hose so I don’t stop breathing during the night.

When it comes to breathing, you can breathe easy, breathe again or breathe a sigh of relief; you can breathe new life into a project, breathe a word or speak under your breath; you can be out of breath, catch your breath, take a deep breath, hold your breath, wait with bated breath; you can save your breath or waste your breath. You can breathe down someone’s neck or even take someone’s breath away. You can be a breath of fresh air.

But here’s the thing: at the base of it all it is not us that make our lungs work. Something has set in motion this remarkable process that sustains life.

Last week’s parsha, Bereshit, gives us some insight into our tradition’s take on this phenomenon.
At Genesis II, 7 we read, “Then the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” In the accompanying haftorah, the prophet Isaiah describes God as, “He that giveth breath unto the people upon it [earth], and spirit to them that walk therein.”

Scholars have different views as to what the Torah and Isaiah actually mean here. It could be that by infusing humankind with his breath, God is raising these beings above all other creatures. Some go even further, suggesting that God is making humankind in God’s image, thereby elevating them with a noble purpose to be God-like. It may be that this divine breath of life is really humankind’s gift of free will, spiritual cognizance or conscience, all of which further set us apart from other living creatures.

References to the soul may reflect the distinction between the finite corporeal body, derived from the dust or soil, and the immutable inner spirit from the breath. On the other hand, perhaps having both a body and a soul working in harmony is, after all, what makes us truly human.

The lesson to be taken from these passages, whether regarded literally or as metaphor, seems to be that something—a higher power, however defined—has set in motion our mechanisms for both physical survival and ennobled purpose.

The timing of Bereshit is also instructive. We read this parsha, the very first chapters of Torah, right after we conclude the final words of the last book, Devarim, at the conclusion of Sukkot. Thus, Bereshit not only presents the story of Creation and life, but represents the ongoing cycle of life, end-to-beginning and eventually back to the end.

I have been thinking about both the matter of breathing and the cycle of life recently following the death of my mother, Z”l’, who took her last breath on September 27th. Losing a parent, even deep into one’s own adulthood, is always a time for reflection. What did that man or woman breathe into you and your soul? How did they shape you to act in this world in a good Godly?) way?

In the case of my late mother, the short answers are quite a lot and in a great variety of ways.

The fabulous Art Garfunkel has a beautiful song called, “Grateful” in which he sings, “It’s not that I don’t want a lot/or hope for more, or dream of more/ But giving thanks for what I’ve got/makes me happier than keeping score.”

As we approach the secular Thanksgiving, I am exceedingly grateful for the example my mother set; the values she instilled in me, my two brothers and their children; her dedication to Yiddishkeit and her Jewish identity; her lifelong commitment to learning and intellectual curiosity; her wonderful sense of humour. Hers was a life of dignity, love and accomplishment and all who knew her were better for it.

Jewish concepts of thanksgiving tie these themes together nicely. There is a daily presumption that our souls depart over night, to be breathed back into us, as it were, if we live another day. The blessing to be recited upon awakening, modeh ani liphanecha, expresses gratitude for the return of the gift of our souls. This may presage the time when presumably, like my mother, the soul departs and does not return.

But a little research revealed to me another interesting concept that we read about a few weeks ago in Deuteronomy (XXVI, 1-12), that of the mitzvah of bikurim. In fulfillment of this commandment, farmers during the Temple Era came to Jerusalem to deliver to the priests the first fruits of their harvest, saying a blessing of thanks to God for the land and the abundance it yielded. The rabbis single out this form of thanksgiving from other blessings of gratitude because this mitzvah required action to fulfill, not simply words, thoughts or prayers. Nowadays, no Temple, no problem. We must express our gratitude to God, and to our fellow human beings, by symbolically offering up the choicest of our fruits through just and righteous actions and deeds. This, to bring it all full circle, is how we demonstrate that the souls breathed into us are truly being dedicated to fulfilling a higher purpose.

This, I realize, is how I can best honour the memory of mother, and I will try to live up to that standard with every breath I take.

BY: Eric Vernon, Director of Government Relations and International Affairs, Canadian Jewish Congress

One of Canada's leading experts on antisemitism and human rights, Bernie M. Farber is the National Chief Executive Officer of Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC).

Mr. Farber has spent more than 20 years with CJC, battling hatred and racism and strengthening relationships with police services, government and other ethnic and faith communities across the country.

The recipient of countless awards, Mr. Farber is an associate member of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, and was recently selected by the Ontario government to serve as a member of the Hate Crimes Community Working Group. He also serves with the city of Vaughan Mayor's Task Force on Community Safety and Security and the York Regional Police Community Crime Prevention Advisory Council.

Mr. Farber is a published author and has contributed numerous articles on the Jewish political scene, human rights issues, the Holocaust, hate crime and white supremacy to newspapers and periodicals including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Toronto Star, and many others.


Eric Vernon was born in Toronto in 1953. He was educated at the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo and Ohio State University, in history and political science.

For over twenty years, Mr. Vernon has been the principal lobbyist in Ottawa of the Canadian Jewish Congress, the lead advocacy organization for Canada's Jewish communities and UJA Federations.

In 1987, he established the Ottawa Advocacy Office of Canadian Jewish Congress and is currently the Director of Government Relations for CJC. In these capacities he has written numerous briefs, op-eds, position papers and correspondence on national legislation, public policy, and international issues affecting Canada and its Jewish community, including antisemitism, Israel and Holocaust commemoration.

Mr. Vernon has performed a wide range of advocacy duties with federal Members of Parliament and Senators, senior public servants, government agencies, members of the diplomatic corps and representatives of other non-governmental organizations. In conjunction with these duties he has staffed several Congress committees, represented CJC at inter-faith tables, organized conferences and been involved in legislative and social policy development for CJC on a variety of domestic and international issues.